1US$ = 280 manat
The customs officials in Krasnovodsk are stunned at the sight of our arrival. Of the hoards of tourists that must descend upon this jewel on the Caspian, certainly velo-tourists are nothing unusual. Ha. They seem agitated that, without a standard manual on how to deal with our kind, they simply do not know how to fuck with us, as much as they’d love to. Thanks to Alex’s detailed planning, we secured our visa many months before and sail past the irritated officials. Turkmenistan, he says, was one of the tougher visas to obtain. The consulate had written Alex a note to the effect:
“What you propose is impossible. This region cannot be crossed on bicycle. We will not contribute to your demise and regretfully decline your request for tourist visa.” Oleg emailed them with a plea, insisting that in fact he had biked across the Karakum desert many times before, and he himself would ensure our safe passage. We enjoy this layer of irony with a final farewell thought to Oleg, whom we fired from the expedition yesterday. He said we didn’t camp near rivers enough. I don’t think he’d be all that happy here.
He’s probably in Natasha’s arms right now; fully bathed, fed, smoke in hand. Bliss.
It sure feels like we’ve crossed to Asia now. We stop in a shop on the way to town to check out the offerings and change some money for manat, the local currency. We only whisper the word, “dollars” and all of a sudden we are swarmed by three, then five, then ten, then twenty local Turcomen. In a rush, and kind of spooked by the sudden attention, we wheel away before panic ensues. Doesn’t look like changing money will be very difficult; quite the opposite. Locals are only too willing to get some hard currency. Our hotel is reportedly the only one in town to accept foreigners, though the surly Russian front desk lady does her best to let us know that it is indeed a privilege to let us stay there, and we ought not to make a fuss about the toilets that don’t flush, the shit splattered on the walls, the light switch that does nothing and the sagging, bug-infested cots, and pay our $20 and be happy about it. At the hotel’s restaurant, painted a sickly hospital-pink, with a disc jockey pumping out Turkish music, we are waved over to a table of Russian soldiers, the only other guests present in the vast dining room, to enjoy a few rounds of vodka and sausage. Cigarettes smolder in makeshift ashtrays; empty vodka cans ripped in half and folded over to hold the finest “Astra” brand butts. We are poured huge glasses of vodka, watching in awe as our hosts haul it back in one slug. Brandt says, “Jimminy Christmas” with a straight face.
From the airplane we got our first look of the Turkmenistan moonscape. The jagged, coastal mountains rise out of the Caspian stretching eastward, along our route, until melting into the hot sandy soup for a thousand kilometers beyond. We’re going into a culinary void here, we figure. This is a “fattening up” town. We spend the next day touring the local market, stocking up for the start of our desert foray tomorrow. Aisle upon aisle of vegetable sprawls before us. Festering meat, covered in flies, is proudly displayed along side the severed heads of the carcasses.
Quite proud of himself for finding something of value, Alex returns from one such shopping sojourn. “Check this out, Doug. Pear Nectar.” Indeed, full gallon jars of the stuff hang from each arm. More where it came from, he adds. This stuff could save our ass in this desert. A tantalizing picture of a ripe, succulent pear adorns the label. Parched, unable to wait until later, we pry open the top (having already learned the lesson of the uselessness of trying to refasten Soviet style jars; screw tops do not exist) and charge back this wonderful stuff. Too good to be true, as we should have known. No sweet taste of fruit, this nectar. It seems that wherever they make this stuff, in Russia, or Ukraine; they burnt the entire batch and sent it off to Turkmenistan to be consumed. Just awful stuff.
We spend the evening packing our goods carefully, filling our extra water bags for what we expect to be a very hot day of riding. I doze in bed trying to sleep, listening to the wailing of the muezzin belting out the call to prayer.
143 km. time 7:25
2437 km to date
We have set our alarm for 3am, hoping to get an early start on the heat. It is still completely dark, but by the time we are packed and out the door, grayness is not far away. We scouted the route out of town yesterday. Now we follow each other in a parade of flickering red lights. The bikes creak under the extra weight of another 10 liters of water. I’m glad we have it. It is cool now, but yesterday afternoon was stifling. Biking will be tough.
We weave through the jagged coastal Caspian mountains, calling out to each other to make sure we stay together. Brandt has fallen behind. Circling back towards town, I feel a bit nervous, alone now, thinking about our certain “demise”, as predicted by the consulate officers. He has broken his chain, by the light of a small flashlight. He’s annoyed at me for not waiting. I’m annoyed at him for yet another delay, the inevitable outcome will be more scorching cycling later. We have 100 km to make by ten o’clock. This three-minute repair has taken Brandt forty-five. We’ll melt later.
As the sun rises we start to get a better view of the moonscape around us. We pass herds of wild, very mangy looking dromedary camels. These are the one-hump camels. Bactrian camels. To see the two-hump Dromedary camels we’ll have to wait till Mongolia. Only another ten thousand kilometers down the road.
It's nine o'clock. Not a single vehicle has passed us in either direction. We've traveled 70 km. We pull up to a lone bus; the only shade seen in the last hour of riding. Three truckers, a Russian and two Turkmen, have the same idea. They're squatting under the shelter brewing cay. The benches have been stolen, which is no surprise. We join them, kicking the glass from broken bottles aside and creaking into a squat of our own.
"At kuda" Where are you from?
"America", Alex answers. "Canada", I add, as usual.
"A-mer-ika? Ka-na-da" They speak these words with wonder. Their eyes distant, picturing some image from a Hollywood film they've seen, some magical, mystical scene that they must assume accurately depicts America as a whole.
With our thirty word (but expanding, in the absence of Oleg)
Russian vocabulary, we learn that Alexi and his partners are sturgeon
smugglers, kontrabandiste. Probably receiving a shipment from
Astrakhan, the caviar capital of Russia.
He shows us to the back of the truck and opens the metal doors. A waft of cool, fishy smelling air comes
from the dim cabin. My eyes
adjust. It's filled with dead sturgeon,
limply piled and filling the truck.
take a picture. Alexi is nervous, making sure I’m
not about to bust him. We munch on
salted sturgeon, sip more cay, and carry on.
Pushing on, we suffocate under 37°C sun. Squinting into the horizon haze, there is no sign of our destination town. The map showed 105 km. We've pedaled 117. We never seem to come out on the winning side of our inaccurate roadmaps. Headwinds pick up and pound us from the east. I hope this isn’t the prevailing wind.
Alex and I roll in to Dzebel, our destination stop. Drained, I glide through the dusty streets looking for shade to hide under while waiting for the others. Crumbling, one-story concrete houses spot each side of the highway. There are no trees. Camels freely wander the streets, snorting and spitting as they pass.
I stretch out on a shaded bench next to a cow who seems no more comfortable in the heat. A flock of curious local children crowd around to get a peek at the sweating, white-skinned freak in the tight pants. They poke and prod at my bike. They follow Alex as he searches the town for a store that is not only open but more importantly has items for sale. We've learned already that finding a combination of the two is a rarity. I’d even drink some of that burnt pear stuff right now.
"Gdehe zdess magazine?" where can I find a store?
"magazine zakritee" they reply, crossing their arms to represent an "X".
Alex returns with some bread, cabbage and a jar of preserved plums. The plums are good, we’ve learned. We eat a lot of them, probably too many.
An industrious entrepreneur with a “Pepsi” sign has opened his kiosk. Ice cold Pepsi in the desert; what more could I ask for? I hand over 50 manat. He pours me a glass of pink liquid. It’s not exactly cold, but the glass is wet. This seems to be a major selling point. People are lining up. It’s a kool-aid kind of drink. Good enough for me. Good to see some capitalist spirit in this country.
Brandt then Nathan coast into the village together nearly two hours later looking pretty beat up. It’s well over 40° now. They have been pedaling while we have been resting in the shade. Even in the shade I am drained. We’ll have to keep on the early morning riding program to beat the heat.
We find a leafy courtyard and what we hope is respite from the over-curious young townfolk. The owner is honored that we’ve chosen his yard to bed down, bringing us cucumbers, plums and bread as gifts. The kids find us next. At first they poke their heads up from the stone wall, laughing and shouting at us. It is not long until the bravest have approached us and squat, staring incessantly, giggling, while we try to rest and wait for the heat to subside. One of them demands Alex’s thermometer as a “gift” for helping us find food. Maybe there are more capitalists here than I thought.
It's dry enough to sleep under the stars, so we all stretch out under a memorial to the soldiers from this town killed in the war. Still so hot, though, that sleep is only uncomfortable restlessness. It was a tough first day. This isn’t going to be an easy leg of the trip. During the night a light rain falls, and we all scamper for shelter on the porch of the courtyard caretaker.
152 km. time 7:33
2590 km to date
We awake to the sound of leaves blowing in the wind. Hoping it’s a tailwind, we hurry to get rolling. We’re wrong. A hot, dry wind blows in our faces from the east, causing us to squint and our crusty shirts to billow. This is bad news. As it heats up, the wind will likely strengthen. Brandt is dawdling again, though this time he says he is sick, and tells us to go on without him. He fiddles with his enormous handlebar bag, removing each spaghetti-ed cassette tape, each broken cookie from yesterday, and then replacing them while we wait. The three of us leave fight the winds together.
Morning riding usually involves warming up, establishing a sustainable pace and eating some breakfast on the fly. Today, we're panicking. Right away we mould into a pace line, hiding behind the rider in front, Alex. We're crawling at 12 km/hr, not in smooth pace, but erratic. We each take one-minute pulls. It’s slow going.
Through Nebit-Dagh we pass Soviet style apartment buildings with protruding bubble windows. When I look at this architecture I think that this "futuristic" building is what they thought the future would look like back when they built these ugly things. They look quaint against the desert backdrop; like some human colony on an improbable desert planet in Star Trek. This is probably not the future they dreamt of when they built them. In the distance they waver in the heat.
The wind is howling and we’re getting crushed. On the outskirts of Nebit-Dag we pull into the shade on the lee side of a checkpoint station to escape the wind and wait for Brandt. He is nowhere to be seen behind us. Tired from an early morning and a light sleep, I stretch out next to the wall in the gravel and doze off.
When I awake the wind is still howling, causing the trees around us to bend westward; the wrong way. Nathan and Alex are talking to a man on a motorcycle about 20 meters away. Alex is trying to ask the man about Brandt. The man is holding two large, round, flatbreads that look like expensive pizza doughs I would buy at home. Aman, the motorcycle driver, calls them lepioshka.. He unwraps one and hands it to us. It is fresh and tasty, like a giant prezel. Central Asian flatbread—mmmmmm.
Aman peels off to rescue Brandt. We watch the trees around us bending towards where we have been. A deadly headwind. Tired from a poor sleep the night before, we nap on the pavement beside the check point station. Here the road splits, straight, a shortcut Alexsi had told us yesterday, thought the road appears closed. Several hours of riding would be cut, taking us straight into Kazadhik. The southern road makes a loop around the desert ahead, with one more town on the way, before Kazandhik.
After another nap, Aman returns, smiling, Brandt not far behind. He invites us to his house, just off the road, 5 kilometers ahead. We've resolved now, there will be no more biking in this wind. Somewhere there is a touring rule that says when your average speed is hampered by wind and less than 10 kph, you don't have to cycle.
More questioning to Aman: Is there shade? Yes, of course. Is there water? Yes, of course, and my family is there too. They will want to meet you.
In my head I think I had pictured some kind of oasis, or Club Med. Swimming pools, icy drinks, beautiful Turkmen daughters.
A few miles forward on our closed road then Aman pulls off, north towards a mountain range marked on my map as the Bolshoy Balken. Gravel road, then dirt road, then dirt tire tracks, then dirt trail. We seem to be climbing slightly, hardly noticeable, just beyond cruising, flat tire syndrome. Nathan is angry. "How far did this guy say it was?" He said five, we've gone eight since the road. Past abandoned shacks, hoping these might be his home. Aman rides ahead of us on his motorcycle, waiting, waving, and revving his engine at every turn.
We arrive relieved at a trailer, or railway car, parked at the foot of the mountain's steep climb. He has two sons who now circle shyly and squeeze our tires. A toothless old man also emerges. He nods as if he’s been expecting us.
The inside is furnished with only a few colourful carpets and pillows, and inside the only cupboard are three tins of cay and a pile of blankets and camel skins. We make a circle on the floor, leaning on the pillows, while Aman’s children tirelessly fill our empty cay cups, sprinkling fresh mint with each refill.
Seven cups later, we’re sweating more when we drink. We doze into a restless sleep while flies tickle our legs and crawl over our faces. We drape bandanas over our faces to keep flies off. Try to rest, until that one fly asks to be hit. Slow flies--even they must feel the heat.
Aman is a hunter.
When asked about his wife, he seems to change the subject. Granddad examines my Swiss army knife. I awake once to see the o
man rolling out a mat and praying to the southeast. Aman and the children seem to ignore him.
In the late afternoon we’re ready to leave, refreshed after bathing under Aman’s orders. A five hundred gallon tank holds water. I turn the tap on a trickle and splash a little water over me. Aman pushes me aside, turning the tap on full blast, nearly knocking me over. Shouldn't we conserve? He waves me off. Water is cold, refreshing.
We leave, Aman accepting no gift, only pointing to his
tooth,"Please, tablet, tablet."
The younger son has a toothache.
him a handful of Tylenol, "not all at once, okay?"
It is already 3 p.m. with only 30 km traveled, most of our target distance for the day lays ahead. Coasting down the trail to the road, a revelation; the crippling headwind is still howling, but has shifted 180 degrees! We are blessed.
We have to move. By
our maps, we still have 120 km to go.
Over the next five hours, we average 28
kph. across desert, scrubby landscape. Mountains to the north give way to the Malo
Balken to the south. We see a train
crawling across the horizon. Water pipelines
snake along side the road, every so often spewing gysers into the air--stop and
shower stations. For a country so low
on water, there seems to be a lot of it flying wastefully into the air. Camels graze around the periodic patches of
green where the pipes leak an oasis.
They look ragged and patchy.
Sand dunes invade the road, at one point burying the asphalt for 30
m. Pushing the bikes through soft sand,
newly cleaned chains arenow caked with gritty sand.
Alex and I ride side by side, swerving to miss the huge caverns
and to maintain speed. We
seldom, laughing at our good
fortune and amazing rate of progress for the afternoon. We are on fire. Expecting the stores to close by 8pm, we push hard to make town
in time to buy food. "magazin
zakrite" has become an all to
At 7:55 and we reach town, bursting into the store, but are quickly deflated by the meager food offerings. In fatigue and frustration I almost feel like shouting at the storekeeper for his lameness, but he only shrugs and motions us to hurry up and leave. It will seem funny later.
We scrounge a jar of cabbage, some kind of beans and mushy dill pickles. Downing a "King" cola or two from the kiosk that plays Russian rock music, we wait for the others. Brandt comes in faster than we expected, pale and shriveled, as I'm sure I must also appear. No sign of Nathan
Darkness is coming, so we search for a quiet place to sleep,
wandering the town until we find courtyard; shaded, private, similar to the one
we found last night. Local curious
kids are still
able to track us down, peering over the fence.
With sleuths like this, Nathan will have no trouble tracking us down.
This is some kind of workers rest house, and a young man is apprehensive to let us set up. Some one else, we sense, is making the call. Dismissive of his reluctance, we set up anyway. This approach seems to work wonders: If ever you're not sure if you should be doing something, if it's against the rules or not classified, do it anyway. We joked that the reason we got away so much with things that would otherwise be illegal was that there was no form for the authorities to fill out for, "What to Do When Cycle Tourists From America Arrive in Your Town."
Nathan arrives late, having passed the town on the highway, having to double back from the other side. Street signs in this part of the world defy intuition.
Stoves howl in the twilight. I have that feeling I'll have on many occasions before the end of the trip. Cycled too hard into town, I'm bonked, know that I must eat and drink to feed the machine, but I'm too bonked to do anything. Bloated, dry, tired, shivering, restless. Iodinated water tastes like bad medicine. I lay trying to sleep, thinking of our incredible afternoon on the bikes, of Aman’s trailer, wondering what he does in the winter, what he does for food….
143 km. time 5:50
2733 km to date
pull out of town early, stopping to pose upon the gigantic monument to the
town's name: "Kazandhzik", in
twelve foot high concrete. Seemingly a
Nathan is down today, convinced he will be hitchhiking. We convince him to hang on, plugging in the walkman and passing the hours of irrigated farmland and following their life giving, though spewing, water pipeline.
I see Alex ahead. In the usual order, Alex leads, then Me, then Brandt or Nathan. I play a game, occasionally looking ahead to see if I am gaining. I am. Pushing harder, to catch up. The dot gets larger, till I see him pull off to the left, a roadside "Cafe" it says. I'm equal with the cafe as Al emerges, "Cafe? All they had was cigarettes, vodka and canned meat! What kind of Café is that?”
Leisurely cruising into lunch, Alex and I cycle abreast, shifting from lead to following, continuing our ongoing conversations on life, tree planting, solar cars, women, music, movies, politics. At this point in the trip we have become fast friends. Curious on our opposing views from different backgrounds in different countries, now come together for prolonged comparison. I did more listening than talking early on, learning his techniques early. When making a point Alex speaks in commas, usually backing an argument with three points. The most obvious points come first, tumbling out to make way in the brain for the developing second and conceptual third point. By the time the second comes, the third must be close behind. If not, a well placed "um" always preserved the floor. Objective, concise, frank.
We reach our lunch rendez-vous: Kizyl-Arvat, and await the others. We pull of the highway and hit the first kiosk we see, quickly downing a “King” cola and a pack of Turkish cookies before heading for the town center. We always agree to meet at the town market or the post office—every town has one.
We make a quick visit to the market—a huge outdoor square apparently built for something twenty times larger than a market. The perimeter is lined with stalls selling watermelon and pear juice. At a restaurant near the market we wait for the others, devouring an entire melon, rivers of juice running down our necks.
and getting off the
That’s when you really feel
it. Sweat instantly evaporates from my
A drunk man invites us into his restaurant, the one we are sitting outside, with promises of juice, salat, and peroshki. Inside, soldiers and truck drivers surround round tables with plastic tablecloths I remember from picnics. A few look up from their conversations as we enter and shout, as if announcing our arrival to a party. Everyone is drunk, plastered; vodka and beer all around. I can't even think about touching it. I look around at the Harley Davidson posters and framed pictures of monkeys playing poker. How many Turkmen own Harleys, I wonder?
Salat, not as we know it or pictured a salad, is served. Sliced cucumber and sliced tomato on a plate, nothing else. Peroshkies are questionable looking meat deep fried and still glistening. I seem to crave it, and eat several. Brandt then Nathan arrive. Nathan is hurting. He looks terrible—pale and shaky. Nathan looks at the peroshkies and knows he would not keep them down. Now he must endure an Alex lecture about "feeding the machine. You gotta eat, Nathan, You gotta eat, you gotta eat." Bonked and oblivious, he stretches out on the concrete floor of the restaurant and tries to sleep over the laughter of the soldiers. "Bolenoy", we say, pointing to Nathan, he's sick. The soldiers nod and try to lower their voices, seemingly ashamed of their mocking, if only for a minute.
Alex must find a telephone to call home for news on Ethan’s arrival. The rest of us find refuge from the heat and the crowds in a small, shaded garden surrounding some government building, which seems to be empty. Alex is gone for nearly an hour, enduring the usual frustrations of trying to make a simple telephone call. I munch plums while Nathan writhes and moans, shitting several times in the bushes.
Afternoon winds are at our backs, cruising easy at 30 kph. Nathan is not up for it, convinced he must hitch. Even with the wind, he could probably spin at 20. He passes me in a truck, only to be dropped off ahead in the distance. Still adamant about a ride, he waits for another. Our winds lead us to an easy 140 km day, though the heat takes a toll as we hit town. Bami, our meeting place, is a tiny rural village. No market, and only one street. A suave Russian runs a kitchen and invites us for dinner. Greasy soup and bread feed our weak stomachs. Somehow it tastes good.
Looking for a place to sleep, we are chased from a shaded courtyard that looks similar to that of Kazandhzik and Nebit Dag. The owner seems to think we are a threat. The Russian cook guy points us down the road, outside town, to a grassy patch along a fenced pasture. A parade of children runs after us, mercifully giving up after a short chase.
Now Alex is off, with stomach pains and "green, frothy shits." Nathan is gurgling in symphony as well. I ask that they please shit only down wind. Brandt seems okay, and I am fine at the moment, at least much better than in Turkey.
92 km time: ?
2825 km to date
Morning humidity hangs over the highway and thickens the air. Worn out legs from poor sleeps, this is a tough day of little progress. We are exhausted by Bacharden, the last major town before Ashcabad, and our last food stop for the day. It's early afternoon and hot. Alex and I stretch out at a kiosk for a few Kings, politely declining the ant-covered apricots offered by our hostess. She persists, so we feign sleep, one eye on our bikes.
The central market is not so easy to find, with back streets and back tracking leading us to the only market in town, we think. The others will have trouble finding us. We claim a small victory when we find an old friend in raspberry sodas, like the kind we had in Russia. We buy four each and stretch out on a shaded portion of sidewalk, trying hard to drink more than we sweat.
The others arrive, hot and angry. The market was not easy to find after all. It is Brandt’s turn to shop for food, but he
returns empty handed.
. "There really isn't much there." says Brandt.
"You'd better find something, Brandt. We have to eat tonight.” But when we each take a crack at shopping, the results are no more encouraging. I wander past the tables, the perimeter kiosks, "Mars", "Snickers", "M&M's", "Pepsi". Though none of them actually carry the products they advertise on the stickers plastering the outside of the stands, there is a healthy local supply of panty hose, vodka, and cigarettes.
We leave the market inadequately supplied, haggard, and divided. I have hope at the back of my mind knowing, however, that tomorrow would bring us Ashcabad. I pictured air conditioned malls, McDonald's, car washes, and Dairy Queens. Ashcabad, we were sure, would lift our dragging bodies.
Almost out of town, I catch a whiff of baking bread, and follow the aroma to the back of a building, to the loading dock for a bakery. A man is loading fresh lepioshka on a truck. Score! He sees us, laughs at us, and gives us eight rolls, declining any Manat in payment. We must look pathetic.
An old man on a big, steel, one-speed bike with wobbly tires passes us as we roll out of town. Stunned that we’ve been passed by a local, Alex springs to life, "We can't be dropped by this geezer." He stands on his pedals and rides hard. The man rides faster. The rest of us watch and cheer him on.
The famous Geok-Tepe hot springs are said to be outside town. But as we ask for directions, locals scratch their heads, providing estimates range from 3 km to 12 km in every direction. As we ride further, and estimates grow, our enthusiasm for them declines and then crashes.
Alex sums up our waning enthusiasm, "Doug, at this point, even if we find them, which I don't think we will, I probably won't even go in the things. I'm tired, I'm sick, my shit is frothing green and, um, have little desire for anything right now except sleep."
We’re a sorry looking bunch tonight. Intestines are wailing. They take turns walking downwind and
dropping their pants. While my guts
seem okay, I feel a dehydration headache coming on. Can't eat, too dry. Can't
drink, too bloated.
Brandt seems worse for wear. Since about the third day of the trip, he's been sick and never really recovered. Now his face is sallow, ribs sticking out along the length of his chest. I tell him I don't think he's eating enough. He says he never has time, always feeling sick. I don’t think he’s recognized this vicious circle that originated, I’m certain, back in Turkey when he told me he hadn't slept in three nights before leaving for Istanbul. Not just no eating: not sleeping, not drinking either. Every day now for Brandt was a wake up to misery. No joking or smiles from Brandt. He's pedaling through misery.
Nathan has been worse lately too. He's withdrawn and silent. He provides little or no input into daily plans. Passively nodding, mounting his bike, riding head down, noticing little of his surroundings. Shitting constantly.
Alex and I discuss the morale of our friends hoping that Ashcabad, and the arrival of Ethan, will breathe new life into our team.
91 km time: 3:00 (average speed 30.1 kph--trip record)
2916 km to date
Alex has a rough night, making multiple trips outside the tent. In the morning he’s pale and still. He stirs, pasty and dull, his feet stained with shit. Could be a rough day ahead. But all of a sudden, a gust of wind billows the inside of the tent. Then another. Alex looks up, “Headwind? Or tail”? We rush out of the tent to check the direction of the sand swirls relative to the distant highway.
It's a tailwind.
Before I have a chance to dress Alex is dismantling the tent. "These winds don't last all day. Get 'em while they're here." He calls to the other tent, still silent,
"get up boys, we got ourselves a tailwind this morning. Don't miss out. I'm outta here."
The tent is rolled up and he's loading his bike before the others even emerge from their tent. I'm somewhere at a stage in between. Don't want to cycle the last 90 km into Ashkabad alone so I'm scrambling to depart with Alex. As I’m tying my shoes Alex rolls away. The others aren't clued in yet, still puffy eyed and sleeping. We shout to the others that we’ll meet them in town. Ten minutes later I’m chasing Alex.
It's a cruising day, when you feel you can't stop or you’ll miss out on the tailwind. At the 30km mark I catch Alex, after only 50 minutes of cycling. We push harder, past villages, past trucks, buses, past "gai" stations and waving officers- though we still wave back. At one point our speed peaks at 45 kph for 15 minutes. Tires wail against the hot asphalt, whistling in delight. We laughing as we go, amazed at our level of energy. A directional sign points us on a detour, which seems to bypass north of the city. We’ve learned to trust our instincts when it comes to road signs, and push right past the detour.
When we stop for a break, it is short and anxious. Women laugh when Alex makes conversation, breaking the silence by pointing down the road and asking, "Ashcabad?". They giggle and run away. Sitting in the shade of a bus shelter, surrounded by broken glass, sweat pours down my arms and legs, a crust of salt has formed around my face, giving me a powder white look.
Scenery changes from rural to a kind of urban-rural. Farms seem less remote, closer together, crops seem to grow, and traffic thickens. Farming still dominates the landscape, with signs of life and prosperity. The progression continues into town, when farms disappear, now wide streets with shaded boulevards.
Buildings are plastered with portraits of Niyasov. Apparently, in the last “election”, 98% of the populace voted for him. Forgetting the fact that there were no other candidates, this is mighty impressive. "You know, Doug, I think we'll be able to find someone here that voted for that guy." Typical, he says, "you starve the rest of your country but build a stately capital, to leave the impression to outsiders that the whole country is flourishing. How many foreigners do you think ever see what we've been cycling through for the last five days?"
Our rendez-vous with the others is to be the American embassy. Somehow, the sight of Old Glory flying in front of the hotel makes even me think of home. We lean our bikes against the hotel and walk in, though the doorman protests. Dismissively, we suggest we have special permission to do so, “we’re the International Velotourists, back off.”
The embassy is located on the hotel's second floor. We are introduce to Ben Webber, the assistant consular, who assures us that the location is temporary. "Wait till you see our new location: air conditioned, big offices, shaded street." He seems unimpressed, but more in ignorance, of our travels. No, he's never really ventured outside the capital in his six months since arrival. Nor has he spent much time in the local markets, but the more he talks, the less this surprises us. There's no MacDonald's yet, he says, "but if you want a pretty good burger and fries, you should try the "Florida Restaurant." In the centre of downtown, across from a brand new five star hotel, a Turkish joint venture with the Turkmen government. That's where Ben Webber eats quite often.
He learns that I am not an American. "You really shouldn't be in here....but I suppose I can make an exception this time. The German consulate handles British matters, but they've been difficult lately."
We turn to leave. “And one more thing guys. In case you haven't noticed, this is a pretty dangerous country. You're lucky that up to now you haven't had any trouble. Be careful. The police are corrupt. The markets are full of pickpockets, and guys.........always wear your helmets."
Nathan has since arrived and Brandt follows after. All I can picture is a Florida burger. In my mind's eye I picture a home barbecued 1/2 pound juicy burger with lettuce, tomato…..
We weave through traffic towards the center of the city. More and more impeccably kept buildings appear, each bearing Nysasov’s fat face. More five star hotels appear. Who the hell stays in them, we wonder?
Well kept buildings bearing Nysasov's fat face, a
repeating pattern of five star hotels.
"Who stays in them?" And finally the Florida
restaurant, written in a cool script,
surrounded with palm trees and pink
Whoosh. Open the door to the Florida and enter another world. Air conditioned, the sweat dries, and crystallizes on my skin. The Florida has a clean, tiled floor, cleaner than, say the shit covered walls in our Krasnovodsk hotel. Young, shy, and beautiful Turkmen girls in uniforms hustle about the restaurant with an imported intensity of a real fast food eatery. It's not busy, but they seem to hustle in a deliberate, unnecessary manner still.
We are stunned and frozen in a dream. They have cherry Visne drink pouring ice
cold from a fountain. I order
three. The Cheeseburger is not as bad
as I expected, though not quite a Wendy's.
Just like a fast food joint, the chairs are bolted to the floor. Savouring and inhaling our trays stacked
with food, I don't notice until now that most of the other patrons are
American: ex-pats, joint venture
workers. They look over their shoulders
worker joins us, Derek, from Indiana.
He's been working north of Ashcabad for a few weeks, in Turkmenistan for
six months into his two year term. He
married a Turkoman woman last month. He
gives us directions to the Peace Corps office, where he says we might find a
lead on accommodation in Ashcabad.
Wandering lost through Ashcabad finally takes us to the Peace Corps. There is a woman they know who will provide us with accommodation. Margarita lives across town in an apartment block. We follow the directions along a busy street belching with Ladas, straining our eyes to see the block numbers written on the corners of the buildings while dodging holes in the pavement where manhole covers used to be.
A woman in a red and white dress jumps from the sidewalk, laughing. “Hello. I am Margarita. Welcome to my home. “ Margarita leads us in to her apartment; small, crowded and covered in floral wallpaper. “Everything here is for you. I am leaving for three days. I have made borscht that is on the stove. Please eat all of it. Do not clean anything up. It is my duty to clean up after you.” A Russian school teacher in post-Soviet Turkmenistan, she says has experienced the discrimination once felt by the Turcoman. Recently passed over in a promotion for a less experienced Turcoman to remain earning 3000 manat per month.
Smiling, she says, “ I have nothing, but am blessed.” At 40, she is a grandmother. The father of her grandson recently crashed her Lada, and now they haven’t the money to repair it. “Things were better before, but such is life and such is change.” We are paying $80 for our three nights there which surpasses six months income. No wonder we are so welcome.
Such was the attitude of our hostess for the next three days. She only appeared once, to bring us more bread.
Walking around outside later, we find the “liquor store guy”, though he only seems to stock vodka. He is happy to exchange dollars for manat discretely and at a good price, double the “official” rate. We return to his stand several times over the next couple of days, never buying any of his wares, and never agreeing to change his “minimum” of five hundred dollars. Ten at a time goes a long way. He opens a drawer piled randomly with manat bills and counts out 3000 manat for $12. As we leave three or more people approach us “dollars yest?” Everybody wants dollars. We keep using the liquor store guy. We like him.
I try to telephone home but am frustrated after getting 27 busy international lines in a row. Each attempt requires dialing 18 numbers on a stiff rotary dial phone. My finger is blistered.
In the heat of the day I find refuge in a courtyard behind
the Florida Restaurant, sipping tea, writing letters and watching the embassy
workers file in from reality for a taste of home. The Florida is a joint venture with a Turkish company and the
Turkmen government. The government
takes a 75% tax from Florida operations.
Part of the Niasov foreign capital project. Across the road is an incomplete five star
fifth one for Ashcabad, which boast the highest number of five star hotels per
capita in Asia. Most of them are empty,
says one Peace Corps worker.
Alex returns from the airport with his cousin Ethan, the newest team member. Ethan is tall, strong looking, fluent in Russian and a personable guy. He cuts through the red tape in the Chinese Embassy as we seek a three month extension on our Chinese visas. The next day, as we depart Ashcabad, he leads the way, cutting the wind and taking us to the front of a fuel queue for our stoves. It’s great to have new blood among us, new enthusiasm. Brandt and Nathan also seem refreshed after our break in Ashcabad. We feeling good, ready to attack the next leg of our journey: bagging the rest of Turkmenistan.
100 km time: 4:11
3016 km to date
Artyk, Turkmenistan 1km from Iranian border
We get an early start on the road out of Ashcabad. We need fuel for our stoves so we stop to fill up at a benzene station near the edge of town. The line up is dozens of cars long. It’s chaos at the pump as four or five Turcomen shove for the single pump. Ethan diplomatically offers a man who has just filled up a few dollars if he will fill our small containers. This causes more confusion and shoving. I get in a scuffle with the benzine guy as I try to take photographs of the queue. I shrug and say, “tourist”.
It’s scorching outside Ashcabad. Early in the afternoon we pull off the road for lunch. We stretch out in a courtyard of a tractor depot of a communal farm. I stick to my groundsheet, drifting in and out of a snooze. Passing the time we eat plums and bread and bring Ethan up to date on the trip so far. As usual, the Oleg chapter takes most of the telling. Ethan tells us that he has just left his new girlfriend. He is missing her already.
A movement from a nearby shrub catches my eye. It’s a puppy, only days old. It is squirming and tripping through the underbrush, trying to reach water. There is no water around, only a depression where a dry faucet used to spill. The puppy is dying. Lost, or abandoned by the mother. It will not survive another day.
Ethan hammers the afternoon, leading a pace line
of Alex and me. Kopekdagh
mountains emerge in the south, beyond which lies Iran. We pull aside to rest at a bus stop and wait
for struggling Brandt and Nathan. . Spewing smoke, a green a passenger train
silently glides by to the south at the base of the Kopet Dagh mountains. We buy apricots from roadside vendors. Nathan rolls up, “God damn. It’s hot.”
He is listless and covered in sweat, like a zombie. Brandt continues with the self-effacing
remarks and transparent altruism.
Ethan’s arrival has isolated him further. “I’ll just go alone then.”
“You take the cyclometer, Ethan.
I don’t want to know how far we’ve gone.”
We call it a day in Artyk, a very small village near the highway at a point where the Iranian border nudges almost to the highway. We defiantly wish to camp as near as possible to Iran, and decide that we should camp outside the village, on the border. A group of entrepreneurial girls shower us with King Cola and Fanta. The only available water is murky brown sludge from an old well. When I drink it the sand grinds in my teeth. We spread out on the sand, amid torn up barbed wire and tank pad tracks. Soon our stoves are roaring and dinner of pasta and sautéed vegetables is served. I bathe later at a point in the canal where the water spews constant geyser. It feels so good, with so few luxuries, to be able to wash away the day’s salt crust and road crud. Sunset brings some respite from the heat, but I still feel sweat running down my legs as I doze off.
160 km time: 5:44
3176 km to date
Tedzhen, Turkmenistan (30 km beyond)
I wake early to the sound of howling winds and the feeling of the tent being lifted in the air. Crawling out of the tent in with a few seconds of apprehension I wonder: are these good winds (tail), or bad winds (head)? They are from the west, so we are blessed, at least for the first half of the day. Later today we will turn slightly north, in a bid for Mary and towards Buchara, and the winds may kill us then. For now, there is no time to dawdle. We pack up quickly and latch on to the wind. Our speed over the first 80 km today averages 33.5 km/hr, which is incredible for all the gear we carry. Scenery whizzes by, leaving the Kopekdagh mountains behind and replaced by cotton fields and wheat fields, irrigated by the Karakum canal that has been roadside companion since Nebit Dagh. The tires wail a high pitch on the hot pavement and there seems little need to even pedal. What a morning!
We stop at a gai station in Dusak. There is little evidence of a town here save the gai station, a railroad stop, and a sheet metal shack near by. The officer is unimpressed with our usual , “I don’t under stand you.” routine, especially when Ethan pipes up in fluent Russian. The officer lets us pass, as usual, we think, in the absence of knowing what he would do with five cyclists if he had to hold us.
The sheet metal shack guy smiles and waves us in with a quick slap of “Salam” and handshakes. He is selling Serino, the sub-par Soviet-era soft drink that is barely palatable, though we each buy three and collapse in after a good morning pull. We try to rest in the stinking heat, at least now shielded from the wind, but now the flies take turns landing on our sweaty bodies. Bandanas keep them out of our eyes as we rest.
Out comes the vodka. It is 10am and very hot. None of us are feeling very much like vodka in the 35C heat, but we oblige our host and his companion for a swig or two. This does not satisfy our host, as he indicates that there is no use in having only on one drink after he has just opened a fresh bottle. Soviet vodka does not come with a screw cap. Once you open a bottle, you have to finish it, or waste it.
We turn north after Dusak, and our blessed tailwinds turn from the side. It’s over 35C now and we’re running low on water. Low on energy, we stumble with dry throats into the Tedzen market. We each buy some very tasty Iranian orange drink and collapse in heap in a corner of the market to a crowd of very curious children and a man who scolds us for wearing lycra shorts in this public place. Cultural sensitivity is not high on our list of things to consider this afternoon. The others rest in the shade while I shop for dinner. Kids watch closely, too closely, and make off with Nathan’s sunglasses and Brandt’s walkman.
A man named Boris takes us to his home, a welcome respite from the onlookers and the heat. With rugs on the walls, and pillows on the floor, we lean in a circle as Boris makes cay and brings melon and bread. Ethan carries on a conversation in Russian as the rest of us cool off and rest. So hot! Hot!
As we turn to leave, I give Boris a Canada pin, though he seems disappointed. Instead, he suggests we should leave our watches as memento of our visit. We roll out of Tedzhen and push another 30km with great effort, leaving Boris disappointed with the watermelon we’ve left as a compromise gift.
116 km time:5:36
3292 to date
I guess it was my turn to get sick after all. Most of last night making trips out of the tent to deal with my gurgling stomach. It wasn’t such a pleasant night. Morning comes, and we’re all a bit grumpy from a restless night We had pulled off the road and set camp behind a grassy knoll, out of view of the highway. Frequent cars passing and abdominal agony kept me awake. Alex looks worse than me. Yesterday afternoon’s ride from Dusak to Tedzhen I think kicked our asses. We fight down our breakfast of rice cakes and evaporated milk but it doesn’t stay down. I’m hurting.
Ethan is silent and staring far away. For the first time, Brandt and Nathan lead the attack from camp. I throw on my walkman and struggle through the first 40 km, having to pull over eight times to relieve the inner aliens. I’m nearly out of toilet paper that the Chinese Embassy in Ashcabad supplied me with so I’ve been tearing up old maps for that purpose.
My stomach punches. Drinking is painful. I try to force down some Arrowroot type cookies but they turn to paste in my mouth. I am unable to swallow. Last in the group- each having passed me while my white ass hung over the ditch. It’s already 35C at 10 am.
We find a refuge from the sun at a river crossing and hide
under the bridge. A few men gather
around with a concerned look about them, “Ot
, they ask. I try to answer but it seems like only dust comes out of my mouth
when I speak. Another lady scolds us
when we try to take a nap under her picnic table.
Eventually we find a spot near the river to escape the afternoon heat. Three men sit beside an empty trailer sipping cay. I roll out my mattress under the trailer and fall asleep to the sound of Ethan explaining our trip to our hosts, fading in and out of sleep while shit flies crawl over my soaking skin. These are the first Muslim men I’ve seen wearing shorts. They periodically get up and jump in the muddy water, gesturing us to do the same. I’m content in my daze. They offer more and more cay, as it is said that it will fix my bad stomach. I gulp back one, followed by at least six more cups. I’m still parched. Alex gulps back cup after cup as well, not moving otherwise.
The maps indicate another 60 km to get to Mary, our destination for today. Mary is in the heart of the Karakum desert. Late in the afternoon we set off, still searing hot. Within ten minutes Ethan is roadside, puking in the bushes. We all pull off to wait when the unexpected happens.
Approaching from the east, a Toyota Land Cruiser materializes on the road ahead, slowing before us then stopping beside me. I’m staring dumbly at this foreign vehicle. We haven’t seen such automotive quality up close since Turkey. If we had, they tend not to stop for us. All of a sudden the door opens—Whoosh!.
A wave of cool, air-conditioned air touches my sweaty legs. I look in and see a beautiful blond woman, maybe twenty years old, in a white dress, lounging in the back seat. I’m not exactly looking my best—green from a night of diarrhea, lips chapped from the sun, but she speaks to me anyway. She looks concerned. Her voice is warm.
“What are you guys doing here?” Just then Ethan emerges from the bushes, pale and pukey. I try to explain our goal, though right now the prospect of riding across Asia seems so absurd, with the trouble we’re having just getting to Mary. She nods politely. Her name is Anne Perry, she says, a Peace Corps volunteer from Philadelphia stationed in Cardjou. Inadvertently, my eyes catch her cleavage.
“Would you like some Chapstick? How about an M&M?” With that, Anne Perry from Philadelphia wishes us all the best, says goodbye, and disappears in the air conditioned Land Cruiser towards Ashcabad. It was a dream. We are alone once again in the heat.
Ethan decides to opt for a hitch while once again Brandt and Nathan blaze ahead. Alex and I struggle together over the next few agonizing hours. Sapped of all desire, we stop every ten km, lying on the gravel roadside to conjure some more energy. We force down water and the dusty baby cookies. It’s like trying to whistle after stuffing your mouth with soda crackers. I am genuinely bonked. My body searches for a new source of fuel. I have not eaten anything today except two Snickers bars and Anne Perry’s M&M’s.
Sunset comes bringing cool, but not Mary. There is no sign of our destination, not even outskirts. We curse our maps for their ill-plotted mileages once again. We dig deep in the fuel tank for more energy, knowing that if we cannot even see it yet than it is several hours away. In the darkness new senses take over. The feel of the road is so acute. Every bump or stone tenses my back, anticipating a flat tire or worse, a bent rim. Waves of foul smelling garbage and sewage waft over our pathway. The shouts of a group of drunken youths fails to slow us down, except that we shouted back, thinking at first that they may be the rest of our group. Our shouts only bring a shower of rocks, so we press onward. Where is Mary? Where are Brandt and Ethan?
We finally reach the outskirts of town and roll through the gai stations unhindered. The others are waiting for us at a railroad crossing. We are relieved to see the rest of the crew, but we’re exhausted, and patience is short. Few words are spoken. We only want to find a hotel and sleep. We check in to the Hotel Sanjar, another decrepit, decaying post-Soviet hotel. Wallpaper peels from the walls, feces decorate the bathroom walls and floor, and light sockets and switches outnumber functioning lights by at least 20 to one. But for now, it’s home. I collapse on the sagging bed.
A knock at our door wakes me from my best sleep in days. It is Ethan, announcing that he has had enough of this trip. He will fly to Cairo today to meet his parents, then to America from there. I’m so groggy I think he’s joking, and make some unfunny comment. Alex reads it immediately, having sensed that Ethan’s heart was not in it from the start. Fatigue from just having graduated from college, frustration with the limbo of travelling, and the prospect of a new girlfriend at home seem to be the chief reasons for Ethan’s very early departure. A shame, I think. He’s so very capable of the physical trials of this trip, probably the strongest among us. I’m sad to see him go.
Nonetheless, we cannibalize Ethan’s bike, and he’s happy to take with him as little as possible. Like consolation, or apology, for “letting us down”, though we do not feel this way at all. More accurately, I feel sorry for Ethan, for his lack of foresight in having sunk so much effort and money into nothing. If we pull this off, getting to Asia and back home with a truckload of memories, I can’t help but think Ethan will feel regret with this decision.
Group dynamics take a turn from this day. There an initial feeling of, wouldn’t we all
like to be at home right now, sipping Coke and swimming in a clean pool with
friends. This is followed after his
departure by a united feeling amongst the remaining group that we can move
ahead and do this. It is possible and
we will do it. Though Alex is a corpse
this morning and I’m feeling no better, Brandt and Nathan come alive it seems,
as if the sight of
me and Alex
in agony has fed them with resolve.
Nathan admits feeling victorious yesterday after having beaten us in to
town. I haven’t seen him so energetic
in weeks. Perhaps seeing us go down
Alex is in a bad way.
Fearing that a parasite
be wrecking his innards, I go searching for a hospital with preconceived
visions in my head of what “hospital” means to me: cleanliness, healing sick people, medication, trained
physicians. This would prove to be a
grave assumption on my part. Hours of
hand gestures explaining diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration lead me to an
“Infection Specialty” center. There,
the Infection Specialist directs me to a station wagon ambulance, in dire need
of a new suspension, which delivers me to the hotel to collect Alex, whom I
convince that a hospital awaits, or, at the very least, a good adventure
awaits. We bounce through the streets of Mary, taking an agonizingly long time
to travel five blocks. At the Infection
Center, three doctors and three nurses take an hour to record our names, upon which
we are shown to a room and told to sit on a rusty bedspring and wait. Other zombie-like individuals wearing
striped pajamas stroll to and fro around us.
Those pajamas, I note, would be a pretty cool thing to buy from that
don’t have the heart to take a sick man’s pajamas.
Not long after we are sat on the bedsprings, we determine that this hospital is not going to make us any better, and if we are sick, we’d better take the matter into our own hands. We escape the grounds and try to flag a car for a ride back to the hotel. In our condition, stumbling in the heat of the Mary afternoon, this proves futile, and no one pays us the courtesy of offering a ride. Alex begs a man for the ride and he takes pity, leading us back to the Sanjar. I am afraid that Alex will vomit in the man’s car. Back in the room, Alex climbs back in his bed, careful not to knock over any of the jars of plums lining the floor beside his bed. One jar contains the remainder of a gallon of preserved plums, another contains an equal amount of his vomit, the result of trying to eat these very plums. Not convinced that he is ready to ride, Alex elects to stay another day and recover. Brandt and Nathan are well rested and ready to roll, and push us to move on.
125 km time: 5:24
3417 km to date
Uc Adzi, Turkmenistan
Our goal this morning is to get an early start, planning to ride by 5a.m. I am angry at Brandt already because at 5:30 he is still dawdling and is not ready. This stresses me, knowing that one half hour of cool riding is worth much, much more later, when it is sweltering hot.
But leaving Mary in the dark seems to give us a new
optimism. The rising sun in our eyes is
welcome and invigorating. It is cool
and we are cruising, covering 100 km before 10 a.m. The land dries out fast as we crossed the Karakum canal for the
last time. Irrigated fields give way to
windswept, tumbleweed covered dunes.
Our water intake jumps as we
to keep gulping down the fluids as we ride.
I empty one water bottle every 45 minutes.
The heat presses down on us near 10:30 a.m. It is time to hide, but there is no shelter in sight. In every direction I see only dunes and scrub. Nathan is nervous and suggests that we hide under a tarp for the next six hours. This seems very unappealing to me. Instead, we follow some power lines that have come in to view. Thankfully, they lead to a roadside stop not far ahead.
This Kafe is perfect refuge for us from the afternoon heat. The owners welcome us, peruse our equipment, and lay out mats in a private resting room for us. The room is cool and breezy compared to outside, where my thermometer reads 45C. We are lucky. One of our hosts enters our room with sodas and food. We lie on mats sipping cay, resting from a great morning ride.
Curious truck drivers peek in to our room wearing shaggy camel skin hats. Dance music pumps from a cheap Radio Shack tape player in the main restaurant. I go in to the restaurant to socialize with the truck drivers and to track down some more peroshki. The drivers sip cay and stare at me as I pore over my maps. Pictures of monkeys playing tennis and tending bar decorate the walls like a suburban rec-room from the 1970’s.
We roll away at 6 p.m. It is still unbearably hot, but less unbearable than earlier. It’s hard to get going again. The positive energy from this morning seems to have disappeared. Nathan is sighing. Brandt’s stomach hurts again. Alex is still lying in a bed in Mary, as he has been for the last two days, not enough energy to get up, let alone cycle.
After only one difficult hour of travel, we come upon a desert village, pulling off the highway and weaving through the streets. Dunes cover the streets and mangy looking cows graze the sparse scrub. A throng of children, probably the entire village of children, swarms us and follows us everywhere. They probe our gear and squeeze the tires. We find a place to spread out in the courtyard of the schoolyard. One of the school teachers allows us to camp there, acting as our guardian, scolding the children outside the fence to get away from us. Still, they hang from the fence and watch our every move as we unload, unpack, undress, and cook dinner.
Brandt is moaning, a relentless sore stomach renders him horizontal. Nathan and I fry vegetables and boil pasta for our dinner. As we eat Nathan curses the heat still hanging over the sandy land. It is difficult to sleep tonight, stretched out under the stars in the schoolyard of this tiny desert village.
149 km time 6:00
3566 km to date
At 5 a.m. we are ready to roll, onward to Cardjou and the end of Turkmenistan and a reunion with Alex. I am excited to see this leg of the journey complete. It has taken its toll on us.
Brandt is moaning still, equipment scattered about our platform in the schoolyard. He is not nearly ready to ride, so we wait again, growing irritated yet again. A few minutes later Brandt announces that he will not ride today, instead preferring to hitch a ride. Nathan, I think, almost wished to accompany him, but I pull him along and away we ride. Two of us are now left on bikes.
We cruise along at an easy early morning pace. This is wild desert, the driest and most desolate we have seen. There are no camels roaming, no cars passing either way. The dunes are higher and more frequent, until they eventually run in to each other in a continuous band of sand on either side of the road. The usual roadside scrub disappears.
We are low on energy, worn out from the last two early mornings and poor sleeps. Nathan fades early, falling behind me after two good hours of side by side biking. A tail wind pushes me along at nearly 30 km/hr, but the sun is also rising, giving off a melting heat. I am torn between cycling hard and risk bonking, or spinning easily and get caught in the afternoon heat.
Brandt passes in a truck, waving, stopping, and offering a ride. I decline, as does Nathan. I’m glad to see Nathan hanging in. Nathan and I roll on, stopping for a lunch break at the only shelter on the way, a covered bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Good shade, though, despite the layer of broken glass and of course, the benches missing.
My water supply is running low, though I calculate that if I cut back to one bottle each hour, I will make it to Cardjou with just enough. Passing the outskirts of town, the officers in the gai stations wave me in. Not wanting to delay my arrival, I wave back and carry on riding.
At our pre-determined meeting spot, Brandt has already made contact with the Peace Corps contact we arranged in Ashcabad. I am introduced to Rose, a 72 year old Peace Corps volunteer on her sixth tour. She is quirky and fascinating, scolding Brandt for not introducing me first to her companion, Moualda, a Turcoman woman who will provide our apartment tonight. Rose learns I am from Canada, and begins quizzing me on my knowledge of contemporary Canadian west coast art. She is satisfied when I mumble something about Emily Carr. Having determined that we are respectable young men, she turns and leaves.
Nathan arrives as we are introduced to Srubar, a local Turcoman and an institute teacher of 61 years, very eager to practice his English on us and tell stories. Alex has not yet arrived so we leave a series of messages at the train station and follow Srubar in a cab to our apartment: “Apartment X”. Supposedly this is an unofficial residence registered officially in the name of deceased person that the Institute workers use for their own on occasions such as ours.
Clouds darken the sky and rain pelts down just as we leave the station, chasing after Srubar in the taxi. It is the first drenching rain I have seen in weeks. It is cool now, finally.
Srubar sits in a chair in the apartment, sipping cay, telling story after story to us. He was an interpreter for Niasov at one time, another for a farmers co-operative, providing “free advice, farmer to farmer.” Of the “chute, for cattle casteration.” And of applying to three month old cows, “no horn glue.” “I help in organize for Pakistani company buy thousand bales of cotton. Lined up—one thousand lorries.” Each story is well-rehearsed.
Rose telephones, querying me on our trip plans, and correcting my pronunciation of Buchara. She is calling to ensure that we leave an appropriate thank you note for Moualda and Srubar. Just then Alex arrives at the front door, having spent the day hitching from Mary. I am glad to see him. We trade stories from the last two days, re-energized.
Srubar leads us to his home, one of the apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city. His son fires up the barbecue for kabobs. Srubar tells us of meeting his Russian wife at a mountain climbing expedition in the Tien Shan many years earlier. He proudly shows photographs of her in her youth, a strikingly beautiful young Russian woman. He sadly explains that she has let herself go, and that his son is a lazy deadbeat that refuses to get a job and move out of the house. All the while his son and wife are within earshot, unaware that his English stores are about them.
At the market he beams each time he makes a purchase for us,
telling us the original offer price, then the final, lesser price we paid. Crowds follow us with the usual, “Dollars,
ask Srubar about his dealings with Niyasov, but he withdrawals, “we stay mum
about that.” Back at his apartment he
reveals corruption, lies, and bad deals when he was the president’s
Back at Apartment X Srubar proudly repeats all the same stories to Alex, and once again before we are ready to sleep. Brandt and Nathan have stumbled in from the walk back, drunk with fatigue. Srubar sits in a chair while I am the only one left to listen to him, “I can sit here and drink cay all night long,” he admits, and appears to be settling in for just that.
Srubar, at 61, is one of the oldest people we have met in the FSU. Being only 14 in 1945, he would have been just slightly too young to die for the mother country.
148 km 7:15
3714 km to date
We sleep in an hour to take advantage of our
air-conditioned apartment. Brandt and
Nathan haven’t spoken a word all morning.
At 5 a.m. we get up. It is cooler today from the rain and still
overcast. Alex and I stayed up late
comparing experience from the last two days.
We both realize that we rely on the other as positive driving forces on
this trip as Brandt and Nathan continue to decline. They have both been talking about leaving the trip. Brandt is sick again and Nathan is a mere
shell of the Nathan that began with us over a month ago and only two days ago
as he led us into Mary.
Srubar greets us at our door as we pack, walking from his apartment complex through the maze of identical seven-story buildings to ours, to see us off and in the right direction. He gives us directions to the bridge over the Amu Darya river, which will lead us to Uzbekistan. His whole body contorts as he gestures, “Straight, straight! Right!, Left! Straight, straight, straight!” We thank him, say goodbye, and roll onward.
We twist and turn through what seem to be secondary streets, but confirmed by locals, to be the road the bridge. Far from the center of town, the bridge is merely a series of floating barges connected with cables, bobbing and swaying in the current. A man demands $20 to cross. We laugh in his face and carry on. He laughs back at us, knowing that his attempt at extortion was feeble.
“Bridge slippery when wet” signs would have been helpful here. Rain-soaked steel greases our tires and sends Brandt to the iron twice. We pause for a symbolic photograph mid way across the river, but I could sense that two of the hearts were not in it like mine. Smiles are lifeless on a gray and misty morning. Only Alex and I whoop it up, “See ya Turkmenistan!” We’ve conquered the Karakum. On to the next one.
The border is lined with 2 km of trucks, parked nose to tail. Drivers sit drinking cay with other drivers from a fold out cay service compartment on the side of each truck, a sort of substitute for roadside doughnut shops. Many of the drivers recognize us from having passed us over the last week. They wave, give us the thumbs up, and some even applaud.
Things turn ugly in the group at the border. A visa validity date misunderstanding lights the fuse between Alex and Brandt. Brandt swears for the second time ever and announces his intention to go it alone after Buchara. The visa process itself was our easiest yet, though for the first time they pretend to examine our immunization cards. I hope this tension dissipates.
Soon we are away into the countryside, no different from the
irrigated fields of Turkmenistan, though it seems that the Uzbeks are more
boisterous than their neighbours to the east.
At every turn, every tea house, their curious shouts ring out as we race
past. They laugh openly at our request
to change remaining Turkmen manat into Uzbek
sum, but gather in
droves, seemingly from thin air, when we mention dollars.